Abstract fever: Stephen Brameld and Jay Staples

SAM BEARD

Stephen Brameld and Jay Staples. Photo Colin McDonald. 

There is certainly a bug going around Perth: abstract fever. We have State of Abstraction at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which is a major survey of Western Australian artists who have produced work formally considered ‘abstract’; David Attwood’s Glue Paintings at Fremantle gallery Bill’s PC, which a recent review suggested is the resolution of the contentious notion of abstraction put forth at AGWA; Trevor Richards, Alex Spremberg, and Jurek Wybraniec’s joint show Materialogic at Nyisztor Studio back in August of last year; Trevor Richards’s own solo survey at Holmes à Court Gallery; and, most recent of all, the exhibition FLOWERS by painting duo Stephen Brameld and Jay Staples at Stala Contemporary. Gleaning this list, it is clear just how liberally the word ‘abstract’ can be applied to such vastly different work – each with their own histories. The history from which Stephen Brameld and Jay Staples differentiates their work from those mentioned above, is clear in FLOWERS.

Brameld and Staples have been collaborating for several years now. During this time, the duo has developed a collaborative style of painting; working and reworking images to the point at which their individual input becomes indistinguishable. The pair’s paintings are rough and gestural – their brand of abstraction finds its antecedents in mid-century action painting and the neo-dada work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. It is the latter influence that is most apparent in FLOWERS. Brameld and Staples saw, drill, join and rejig their “canvases” in the tradition of Rauschenberg’s ‘combines’ – the term coined by Johns to describe the mixed media assemblage-cum-paintings that Rauschenberg made during the mid-1950s. This connection is apparent in Horse, Penelope, Ghost Gum, and most dramatically in Garden Clockand Sun Dial, both of which feature objects and items fixed to the image surface. Sun Dial is a striking work – a paint-splattered beam splitting the planes of colour-flecked beige and brown textual fields. Viewing the work with Rauschenberg’s combines in mind, the tradition from which Brameld and Staples emerge becomes clear.

Up until now, the pair have exhibited mostly in Fremantle at either PS Art Space or their Pakenham Street studio-cum-displayroom – the latter of which being most conducive to the duo’s aesthetic sensibilities. FLOWERS is the pair’s sixth show together, and not the first to include unusual installation features. In this case, it is an arrangement of reeds in the centre of the gallery, billed as the “second garden” in Emma Pegrum’s text for the show. In the crisp and elegant ambience of Stala Contemporary, this garden-installation helps conjure some of the slick grit that has been such a successful ingredient in the pair’s Pakenham St shows. On the other hand, the arrangement is ultimately unnecessary, as what is central to FLOWERS, and the duo’s work at large, is their lyrical use and combination of materials.

While Brameld and Staples’s collaborative approach is unusual (and something the pair remain mostly reticent about), it is also pragmatic and precedented. The mid-century avant-garde collective CoBrA championed collaborative modes of working, publishing a manifesto on the matter – La Cause Était entendue (The Case Was Decided) in 1948. While the group was short lived, their ethos appears to have left an imprint. But unlike their avant-garde predecessors whose work posed direct challenges to the artworld, Brameld and Staples are more concerned with remixing modernism’s fertile elements. The pair share backgrounds in architecture and design, and this comes through in the work, which is slickly constructed with a clear aesthetic vision in mind.

 Many art critics have noted modernism’s ouroboros-like nature, with each ‘ism’ devouring its forebear, all in the name of modernism’s primary goal: progress. In this version of modernism, the point of the work was for it to be “shockingly new”. Now, in the 21st century, we do not desire the shock of the new, but rather just a sense of the familiar. This is witnessed in the resurrection of mid-century modern design, speakeasies and listening bars, and, arguably, the 1950s modern art revival. Does the chaos of the present manifest in a longing for our aesthetic past? Regardless, the current nostalgia for modernism’s former glories isn’t likely to dissipate anytime soon. And Stephen Brameld and Jay Staples’s brand of neo-modernism will certainly satiate the appetites of many.

FLOWERS is on show at Stala Contemporary until 24 February. 

Sun Dial, 2023, mixed media by Stephen Brameld and Jay Staples.

Ghost Gum, 2023, oil on board by Stephen Brameld and Jay Staples.  

Horse, 2023, oil, acrylic, collage on board by Stephen Brameld and Jay Staples.

Garden Clock, 2024, mixed media by Stephen Brameld and Jay Staples.

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